NEW BETHLEHEM – It was September last year when Northwest Bank announced it would close its branch along Broad Street in New Bethlehem, causing many local residents to fear what would become of the landmark bank building with its iconic clock tower.

That fear turned first to hope, as the Redbank Valley Historical Society stepped forward shortly after Northwest’s announcement that it wished to donate the building to a local non-profit group.

And, this week, that hope officially turned to celebration as members of the society, local dignitaries and a standing-room-only crowd gathered to mark the grand opening of the new Redbank Valley History Center.

“It’s my dream that this new home can be a connection from our past to our future,” historical society president Cindy Morgan said during Monday’s ribbon-cutting program at the historic bank building.

She noted that even though the society has been in existence, and very busy, for many years, something was missing.

“We had no home,” she said, explaining all the work that took place in the past year to make it all possible.

She said that when she first learned of Northwest’s interest to donate the structure, “The first thing I did was pray.” She said she asked God, “If you don’t want us to do this, please slam the door.”

But, she said, not only did the door not slam, but new doors kept opening along the way.

A survey was put out in the community to gauge interest in the project, and it turned out very positive. Then an open house was held at the building, which garnered even more support from community members. Lifetime memberships and other donations began to pour in, along with new people volunteering their special skills that helped to bring it all together.

Morgan said that early in the process, the society reached out to state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion), who took an interest in the project and lent her help in researching ways for the group to raise the much needed money to make repairs to the clock tower and more.

“It’s a beautiful little town, such a nice place to be,” Oberlander said at Monday’s event, telling the crowd that growing up, she spent one year of school at Redbank. It was then that she developed her positive impression of the area, recalling the large old New Bethlehem Bank sign that once greeted people from atop Beautiful Lookout, and the iconic clock tower in the heart of town.

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When she visited the historical society’s open house at the bank building earlier this year, “I came down to see what the buzz was.”

“Wow, you guys have done a fabulous job,” she said of the early improvements to the building.

New Bethlehem Mayor Gordon Barrows also spoke at Monday’s event, highlighting the “tremendous impact” that local historical organizations can have on their communities.

He said that groups like the Redbank Valley Historical Society not only preserve buildings and artifacts, but “voices from the past.”

“They help us tell smaller and quieter stories that often get lost in the larger narrative,” he said, encouraging others to “listen to the voices and add your own voice to the local story.”

“Preservation may be about the past, but historical and cultural places are essential to the future growth of the New Bethlehem area and the Redbank Valley community,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the Redbank Valley Historical Society and their accomplishments in preserving the iconic clock tower and the bank building.”

Morgan noted that Monday’s grand opening is just that — the opening act in a much larger endeavor.

She explained the group’s efforts to raise money to make repairs to the tower, noting that the society is awaiting state approval for a business tax program that will allow local businesses to keep their tax dollars local, rather than sending them to Harrisburg. She said that a number of businesses in the area have already committed to the plan.

The group is also planning to create a “Synergy Tree” to highlight donors who support the group’s efforts, along with a number of events and fundraisers including the “Voices in Fabric” Quilt Show that will run this weekend as part of New Bethlehem’s Peanut Butter Festival.

Also coming up, Morgan said, will be a memorial for longtime local teacher Jack Mogle in October and a silent auction of the many handmade clocks that Mogle donated to the group prior to his recent death.

A movie screening for children is being planned in November, and a musical program and more are in the works for December at the history center.

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